The fact that children need to be disciplined (or guided, if you prefer) is not proof that they are naturally immoral or a-moral. On the contrary: the training they require is tied to a natural, if undeveloped morality. Eila knows what’s right and she needs to hear it too. She needs to hear what she already knows so that she knows that I know and that the world makes sense. The evidence for this is that when parents don’t guide a child, or misguide her, she does not become a happy, uncomplicated, bad person. She becomes an unhappy, conflicted person. And the first thing that happens is that she loses respect for her parents.
This is in my mind because of a conversation I had with a friend the other day. I was talking about my struggles to discipline Eila, and my friend said sadly: “I always cherished the idea that children were innately moral, but I suppose I’ll have to give it up.” I don’t think she does. Children’s morality is pretty vague, but they have a sense of what’s fair, and that’s the root of everything else. They’re sometimes bad because like all of us they’re partly weak and partly selfish, and the world confuses them, and they haven’t learned to master themselves, and also — as I’ve been saying — because they need to test what they sense. But they rise to respond to consistent discipline. St. Augustine says in the Confessions that infants are little bundles of sin, but he’s mistaken.
Speaking of family, you know that three conferences I ought to attend – APA, MLA, and AJS – are scheduled over winter break? Why is this? Is it true that most academics would rather give up three days of their home-time than three days of their office time? Or is it just these academics?